On trial for his life, Martin Luther was faced with the demand that he recant his writings. And he replied as follows:

Your Imperial Majesty and Your Lordships: I ask you to observe that my books are not all of the same kind.

He then went on to classify his writings into three large groups. The first, he said, consisted of writings about Piety in morals and faith, and that even many of his adversaries found no fault in them. How could he, he wondered, recant of something which everyone agreed was truth?

The second group, he said, were aimed at “papists and the papacy,” and that in them he had supplied scriptural evidence for the errors of the Roman hierarchy.

The third group consisted of replies to, and critiques of, individuals who had opposed him and supported the papacy.

Finally, he said, in effect, “Show me where the Scriptures refute what I’ve written, and I will recant those errors.”

In the previous blog entry I said that the writings of Ellen White can be authoritative, not simply are authoritative.Why did I say that? Well, first we have the simple issue of whether or not her writings have been accepted as authoritative in that body, or to that audience. This means that her writings are not authoritative to those who have not ratified her gift, usually this translates to those outside the denomination.

But then we have the same sort of job to do that Luther did concerning his writings. To paraphrase Luther, “I ask you to observe that Ellen White’s writings are not all of the same kind.”

For example, there are books that she wrote on a particular topic. Education and Ministry of Healing are two examples. These are the two books where she directly and comprehensively address the issues of education and health.

Then we have the books we call The Conflict of the Ages Series. These provide her understanding of God’s interaction with His people throughout time, stretching from Creation to The Second Coming. Although they draw upon the Bible, they are not strictly commentary on the Bible, nor they limited to what is in the Bible. In many ways they are class unique and of themselves.

Then we have a sort of catchall category including testimonies to individuals, letters to groups and committees, and a whole range of things.

Finally, we have a list of books which consist almost solely of her words, but are essentially lists of excerpts of the other categories writings, assembled by topic. These are called compilations.

The fact that we have so much of her work, and that it occurs in these varied forms, presents us with both opportunities and difficulties. The opportunities we grasped quickly as a people, recognizing an invaluable source of counsel. The difficulties arise — as they do with the Scriptures — and how to interpret and to apply the information provided in these writings.

So when we’re talking about authoritative, we have to address each of these different categories separately. I will start with the compilations, which are at once the easiest and most difficult group.

They are the easiest to deal with because, although she wrote all the words contained within them, she did not write them. That is, she did not select and order the passages within them. Neither did she have a hand in which topics are emphasized, except in the most indirect fashion. It could be argued that whatever she mentions most often is also the most important, but there are other factors complicating that simple view. In the end, someone else — someone decidedly not ratified as authoritative by the body — made all the significant choices, beginning with which passages to include in which to exclude.

I am reminded of the old joke in which the man said he made all the major decisions in his family, and his wife made all of the minor decisions. But one of the minor decisions was which decisions were major, and which ones minor. In other words, his wife decided who got to decide what.

One can apply that same logic to the compilations. Ellen White got to make all the major decisions, she received divine inspiration, she wrote all the words. But the compiler decided which passages applied to the topic at hand, and which did not. Even more subtly, the compiler decided the order in which those passages appeared, and how they were emphasized.

The compilations are the most difficult to deal with because they are all her words, and assembled topically as they are they can make a formidable case. Whether that is the case she was making in each of those passages is another matter. But in the compilation much of the ambiguity is eliminated. And let’s face it, they are convenient. I have book that is essentially a topical index of all of C. S. Lewis’ writings. I love it. It’s convenient. Reading Lewis, however, is quite a different thing. The same is true of Ellen White. Sometimes a passage from her writings appears quite different in the compilation than it does in its original context.

Let me give you a personal example. As a teacher in Seventh-day Adventist elementary schools, I commonly kept four of Ellen White’s books either on or in my desk. Education, Counsels on Education, Fundamentals of Christian Education, and Child Guidance.When confronted with a particular behavioral problem, or educational challenge, I usually went to the compilations. For behavioral problems, I referred to Child Guidance. For educational challenges, I might look up the topic in Counsels on Education, or Fundamentals of Christian Education. The last two were handy in dealing with school board issues, as well.

But to understand Ellen White’s total vision of the process of education, I made it a practice to read through the book Education every year. Only in that book did she purposely set forth her understanding of the purpose and function of true education. The other books, while useful, consist of the bits and pieces of counsel given to different people in various situations. To really understand what they meant, I needed to understand the larger vision, the greater context from within which she spoke.

A dear friend of mine repeatedly read Ministry of Healing. He tells me, and it seems obvious when I think about it, that it provides the context for all of her many counsels concerning health.

The upshot of all this is that compilations should be used cautiously, and always in the context of her total vision of the topic. If you want to understand what she believed about the nature of Christ, read Desire of Ages. Any obscure quotation which appears to contradict the larger view of Jesus presented in Desire of Ages is probably a misinterpretation.

Finally, there are what I call the “personal compilations.” That’s what I call the list of quotations that individuals have assembled for themselves. These generally consist of someone searching for quotations to support the conclusion they began with, rather than a conclusion arrived at from a considered reading of all her works.

So, are compilations authoritative? Is there a simple answer to that question? I suggest to you there is not. It would be nice if God had written His absolute will in letters of fire. But if He had, would there be need for us to engage the text seriously? To wrestle with the Angel of divine revelation? Apparently, His spelling it all out for us would not be the best way; for if it were, we can be assured that God would’ve done it that way. But he did not.

Next time, the Testimonies, and other personal/direct communications.

Read other posts from this series on Adventist Identity.